How much richer our connections with the trees that populate our gardens can be when we know where they came from, where their stories began.
Well, plant hunters travelled the world throughout the 17th century, hungry to introduce exotic trees from overseas to the gentry’s sprawling estates.
During the 17th century, the Magnolia was discovered by plant hunter and missionary John Bannister in America and brought back to plant in the Fulham Palace gardens of Henry Compton, the Bishop of London. Curiosity for these intriguing specimens fed demand and the beginnings of exotic tree-planting began in earnest in estates such as that of Prince Frederick and Princess Augusta at Kew.
The appetite for overseas trees continued to flourish during the 18th century and Mark Catesby from Suffolk took on a £20 per year commission to bring plants back from America. He returned with the wonderful Indian bean tree (Catalpa bignonioides) from Virginia.
The Indian in the name refers to the local Native American tribe near to where the tree was first recorded by Mr Catesby. His transcription of their name, Catawba, was incorrectly recorded as Catalpa hence the tree now being known as the Southern Catalpa.
Still, the beginnings of some trees' stories remain a mystery. Take the tale of the Kryzywy Las (Crooked Forest) in Poland, for instance. Here 80 pine trees grow sideways at the base unlike any other trees which grow upwards towards the sun. The outbreak of war cast a veil over the story of the Crooked Forest but a wide range of theories about their origin have emerged – could their odd growth pattern be down to fluctuations in gravity or perhaps they were caused by the Nazis or maybe aliens?
Experts know they were planted in the 1930s and that their alternative growth pattern began when they were between 5-7 years old. Perhaps a Nazi tank rolled over them which created this bend? This theory looks valid given the direction of the bent trees and yet the surrounding trees are not bent, so there’s nowhere the tank could have gone without causing further damage to the surrounding trees and would young saplings survive such an event in any case? Scientists have dismissed the gravitational fluctuation theory and more outlandish notion of an alien spaceship squishing the trees into their odd shape.
The more reasonable explanation is that furniture makers at the time purposely modified the trees by shaping the wood in some way to create curved timber, stopping this process when the type of furniture they were making went out of fashion? Tree shaping is certainly possible, as demonstrated by an Australian couple Becky Northey and Peter Cook who have created sculptures and furniture by inventing the ‘Pooktre’ process of shaping the ‘shaping zone’ of living trees between 3-30cm and shaping the tree as it grows.
Ultimately though, like any good mystery novel, nobody yet knows the real reason why this portion of the forest is crooked, only the trees know what happened in their early lives to create this anomaly in their shape, so their story beginning remains a mystery.